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Kosher agencies make no bones about ‘flawed’ Canadian slaughter laws

“When the Jewish community is being treated differently than other communities in Canada because of our religious beliefs, that is discrimination,” said Richard Rabkin, managing director of the Kashruth Council of Canada.

Young Jewish children watch the Kaparot ceremony before Yom Kippur in September 2010 in Ashdod, Israel. Credit: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.
Young Jewish children watch the Kaparot ceremony before Yom Kippur in September 2010 in Ashdod, Israel. Credit: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.

Two kosher certifying agencies and two meat processors have a big beef with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which suddenly changed the rules and made kosher slaughter a longer and more burdensome procedure.

CFIA has begun in recent months to enforce regulations it enacted in 2018 “with vigor,” Rabbi Saul Emanuel, executive director of Montreal Kosher, told JNS. It appears to be doing so “on a whim,” the rabbi said.

The government agency’s actions have already resulted in a 60% drop in domestic kosher meat production, facility closures, higher prices and larger shipments of imported meats from other countries, according to Emanuel.

An independent organization that oversees Canadian slaughter procedures, CFIA mandates that cows be shot in the head with a bolt gun, to avoid causing pain to the animal. Kashrut laws require that an animal be killed with a single, rapid motion with a sharp knife that instantly kills the animal by severing the primary blood supply to the brain. Kosher laws preclude the use of bolts, as Canadian law requires. 

CFIA requires that Jewish ritual slaughterers conduct a series of bodily checks in between each shechita to ensure that the animal is “insensible,” which means that slaughter houses must wait up to three minutes rather than 15 seconds between each slaughter. At an industrial scale, the three minutes add up.

Emanuel’s employer MK, the Kashruth Council of Canada in Toronto—known as COR—and the country’s two largest kosher meat producers, Shefa Meats and Mehadrin Meats, sued CFIA on March 8.

The plaintiffs allege that the government agency infringes on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of religious practice, according to Richard Rabkin, managing director of the Kashruth Council.

“I don’t want to speculate about the motivations of the CFIA and we have no indications that antisemitism is at play here, but when the Jewish community is being treated differently than other communities in Canada because of our religious beliefs, that is discrimination,” Rabkin told JNS.

‘Discrimination by effect’

Rabkin told JNS that the ideal would be a negotiated solution, and the four entities opted to sue only as a last resort and because the agency is independent and unbeholden to elected officials.

“I don’t think that there is a politician who can say ‘CFIA, we demand that you take the following action,’” he said.

COR, MK and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs issued a joint statement earlier this month stating that “regrettably, the CFIA has ignored the basic science, relying on inaccurate and flawed, selective literature review.”

“Kosher slaughter is humane. There is strong scientific evidence supporting this conclusion,” the three groups stated. “Over the past few months, we have produced several reports from experts demonstrating that following shechita, animals rapidly transition to immediate and irreversible insensibility and as a result do not experience any pain.”

Chaim Soutine
“Carcass of Beef” (1926) by Chaim Soutine in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Credit: Courtesy.

The new CFIA guidelines “render kosher slaughter nearly impossible to sustain,” the organizations added.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the advocacy arm of the Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA (United Israel Appeal), was brought in to serve as the “primary interlocutor” between parties, Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO at CIJA, told JNS.

“I don’t think there is discrimination by intent, but there is discrimination by effect,” Fogel told JNS.

The lawsuit seeks “an injunction that is going to suspend the regulations, as they relate to shechita, until such time as CFIA and us can reach agreement, where it would compel CFIA to return to the table in a more engaged and constructive way,” he added.

Trust the science

The kashrut agencies have submitted several scientific studies, which maintain that Jewish ritual slaughter is painless and renders the animal dead immediately, to the government agency and to the court. 

“CFIA has basically ignored our expert reports and without really proving, or providing proof otherwise, definitively that the animal might be suffering,” Rabkin told JNS.

One of the many burdens the government regulations place on kosher slaughterhouses is a corneal reflex test, which as Rabkin describes it, means that the animal’s eyeball is flicked to probe for a nervous system reaction.

“If there’s a nervous reaction, then it indicates to them that the animal may still be sensible, and the animal can’t be moved,” Rabkin said. That process is then continued every 20 seconds until the animal is “insensible” according to the government’s definition, which has no scientific bearing “on whether the animal is feeling pain or not,” he said.

The government agency has been “respectful” and “responsive” to CFIA in discussions over many years and typically “shares a desire to find solutions,” Fogel said.

“That’s changed a little bit here. Not necessarily any malice for Jews, but there has been a stubbornness about the positions that they’ve staked out, where they’re unwilling to consider the science,” he said. “They’re unwilling to consider the fact that they have it wrong.” (CFIA did not respond to queries from JNS.)

Fogel told JNS that CFIA ought to differentiate between “insensibility” criteria for animals shot with a bolt in the head and ritually slaughtered with a knife across the neck.

Jewish ritual slaughter “targets the cerebral cortex,” interrupting the flow of blood to the brain, he said. “The brain isn’t feeling any sensation, but the body doesn’t know that the brain is dead,” he added, of what he said are an animal’s involuntary twitches.

CFIA is “looking for particular indicators, eye movements, tongue position, animal posture, breathing—a whole series of different indicators, and those indicators, when an animal was stunned, are immediate,” Fogel added.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, a federal agency, provides a “blanket exemption” for shechita. That’s not what Canadian kosher agencies are seeking, “but we are looking for the appropriate set of regulations to guide ritual slaughter,” Fogel said.

Per the USDA, “the statutory requirement that livestock are rendered insensible to pain prior to shackling, hoisting, casting or cutting does not apply to the handling or restraint that is immediately associated with the ritual slaughter cut.”

Canadian kosher slaughterhouses have said that if production slows down more, they may lose enough business that they will have to shutter their doors, Rabkin said. Two have already shut down. Three remain in Quebec.

‘Not easy fixes’

The Jewish organizations enlisted Anthony Housefather, a Montreal-area federal parliamentarian who is Jewish, at the end of January to help “try to find a political solution,” though Housefather told JNS that he is not in direct contact with CFIA. 

“These are not easy fixes, because the regulations exist,” he said. “It is unjust.”

Housefather and fellow parliamentarian Marco Mendicino are liaising with the Canadian ministers of health and justice, and with the prime minister’s office.

The lawmakers have had “only positive discussions, and they understand the position, and we all want a quick solution,” Housefather told JNS. (He declined to share specific details about the confidential talks.)

“I can’t presume to predict what in the end we will be able to prevail upon the CFIA to agree to,” Housefather said. “But we’re trying our best to find a solution to ensure shechita continues, and picks back up again in Canada.”

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